Housing crisis forces Music Fest to cut Philharmonic, reduce enrollment9 min read
The Aspen Music Festival and School has canceled the 2022 concerts for its Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra and reduced its student body by 80 due to the inability to find housing for student musicians.
Music Fest leaders made the decision in February to place the Philharmonic on hiatus when it became clear it would not be able find beds for all of its students, seasonal staff and faculty this summer.
The concert cancellations mark a disquieting milestone for Aspen’s ever-worsening housing crisis, as skyrocketing rental and sale prices, proliferating short-term rentals and an influx of new owners choke the ability of the Music Fest — founded in 1949 as the cultural cornerstone of modern Aspen — to fulfill its mission in educating young musicians.
“No one is happy about this,” Music Fest president and CEO Alan Fletcher said.
The all-student Philharmonic traditionally performs on Wednesday nights in the Benedict Music Tent. Dropping it allowed the Music Fest to reduce its 2022 enrollment by 80 orchestral students, leaving its student body at 480 for the summer.
The move was a last-resort option for the festival, Fletcher said, and entirely based on the housing situation and not on any change in artistic or educational priorities.
The Music Fest has 420 dorm-style beds for the summer among its properties at Marolt Ranch, Burlingame Ranch and Aspen Highlands Village, where the festival holds long-term leases. In most recent years, before the pandemic canceled 2020 and reduced the 2021 season, the festival has enrolled more than 600 students. Those without dorm rooms would rent on the free market.
Additionally, the summer staff at the festival has numbered about 120 people, all in need of seasonal housing. Most of the organization’s 115 faculty rent condos or homes as well, while the 100 or so guest artists generally stay in hotels.
All of those varied housing scenarios have been crunched at never-before-seen levels in 2022, according to Fletcher and Music Fest administrators. The nonprofit is spending a record $2.6 million this summer on housing costs including allowances for faculty, stipends for students on fellowship and hotel rooms along with housing provided as part of financial aid for those in need.
“We’ve had to increase our budget substantially,” said festival housing director Debbie Krigel Collins, who works with hotels and negotiates with real estate brokers and property owners to find seasonal rentals. “But still we are finding some of these rates are astronomical, and we can’t compete. … It’s unfortunate that’s where we have to spend a lot of our money, but that’s just Aspen.”
This season is the first full Music Fest summer since the pre-pandemic 2019 and the first amid a housing market overheated by the pandemic’s urban exodus to Aspen, which led to a widespread conversion of affordable rentals to short-term vacation rentals and skyrocketing room rates at local hotels. The trend has squeezed out locals and led to labor struggles in area businesses of all stripes. If a well-funded organization like the Music Fest, with more employee housing at its disposal than any local entity other than the Aspen Skiing Co., is compromising its operations because it can’t house its people, the landscape appears hopeless for smaller or less-established arts organizations and businesses that need seasonal help.
In a typical pre-pandemic summer, about 150 students would be living in free-market seasonal rentals, according to assistant dean of admissions and student life Jalen Lee. That would be impossible in 2022.
“In our new reduced enrollment scenario, we’re looking at about maybe 50 students total living off campus,” Lee said. “We think that’s going to be a lot more manageable and kind of ensure that everybody that we invite does get to come.”
This month festival leaders are beginning work on a new five-year long-range plan, through which they hope to find solutions to their housing shortfall. For summers 2023 and 2024, however, if they want a full season they will need to act more quickly and creatively.
“This might make people laugh, but we are thinking, ‘What if we got a bunch of yurts and put them on our property?’” Fletcher said.
He expects to draft just such a proposal to create student housing on the Castle Creek campus for summer 2023, and bring it to local governments for approval.
Building or buying, as is the case for everyone seeking housing, are the longer-term options. Fletcher said the festival is looking at both, including eyeing hotels and lodges for purchase.
“The Mountain Chalet came on the market quite recently,” Fletcher said, noting the historic downtown Aspen hotel that sold for $68 million in spring 2021. “I don’t know that we could have afforded it, but if we knew then what we know now then we would have made a try for that.”
After two summer seasons disrupted mightily by the pandemic and public health restrictions, to have to cancel parts of the festival due to this housing issue is vexing for its leaders.
“2022 really was supposed to be a return to normal for us,” said Lee. “That’s been pretty sad. We did have to turn away a lot of really talented applicants that, in a normal year, we would have welcomed here. So that was tough. It’s lot of lost opportunities.”
Why the Philharmonic?
The Philharmonic cut was doable because the students had not yet been told they were admitted. The Music Fest begins admitting students in the fall, with a second wave of students — including orchestral students — admitted in March.
This year they were going to send those acceptances on March 4. As the day approached, however, it became clear that many students would have nowhere to live if they were admitted.
“Come May, people would be calling us in a panic saying, ‘I have not been able to find any place, and I just don’t think I can come now,’” Fletcher said.
Those 80 students, he noted, will never know they had been admitted.
The Philharmonic has traditionally had the smallest audiences out of the festival’s orchestras, with Friday’s Aspen Chamber Symphony, Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra and Tuesday’s Aspen Conducting Academy Orchestra booking starrier soloists and more popular repertoire. It is made up entirely of students, unlike the others, which place professionals and faculty alongside students.
“But it is hugely important educationally,” Fletcher said. “We do not want to give it up, and thus we are going to be thinking hard about solutions.”
The festival had already announced a seven-week, seven-concert program for the Aspen Philharmonic, which was to open July 6 with the world premiere of a new work by composer Shelley Washington. Fletcher said all of the guest artists who had been scheduled to perform with the Philharmonic will be placed elsewhere on the schedule. He expects to release a revised season calendar before season tickets go on sale in April.
While cutting enrollment, the Music Fest is not reducing its number of faculty for 2022 and is not canceling any guest artist appearances.
Hosting guest artists — the soloists and conductors who come from around the world to perform one or a few concerts — is one need that actually can be solved with money.
“If it’s a question of hotel rooms, and you’re willing to spend $750 a night, and you find out you have to spend $1,000, tonight, you just go, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and you can solve this problem with spending,” he said. “But for student-type housing, it appeared to us there was nothing out there.”
New homeowners are also stymieing faculty from finding places to stay, as longtime owners who welcomed faculty or staff in their homes at affordable rates have sold to people who will not.
“In the past, we have relied on the same homeowners year after year to rent to us,” Krigel Collins, the housing director, explained. “I had developed some wonderful relationships with property owners in the Aspen Snowmass areas, and we’ve been able to rent some of the same homes for 10-plus years for the same faculty. … Things have really changed, and it’s not just price, it’s availability.”
She said that out of 25 home rentals she has brokered for faculty in recent summers, 18 have been the same year after year until 2022.
“So many of those properties have sold since the pandemic, and new owners are not working with the Music Festival,” Krigel Collins said. “Instead, they are now short-term rentals through companies like Airbnb and VRBO. Clearly we can’t pay a nightly rate. We need more of a weekly or a monthly rate for our staff or faculty.”
The inventory of those kinds of summer rentals simply does not exist in the post-COVID-19 Aspen.
“A lot of these units that we used to get are a one-bedroom condo that we’d get for $5,000 or $6,000 a month in Aspen,” she explained. “They are now $15,000 a month, because they can get that at a nightly rate. We are just getting priced out.”
Krigel Collins said that since 2015 she has seen the majority of faculty move from renting in Aspen to renting in Snowmass Village, largely spelling the end of a seven-decades-long informal tradition that would see many artist-faculty walking or riding bikes between rehearsals at the Benedict Tent, socializing in Aspen and integrating with the community.
“Now, they’re just part of the traffic and having to wait to get into Aspen with everybody else,” Krigel Collins said. “Their experience in Aspen is shifting to having to commute and struggling to find a rental.”
‘It’s not the same world’
For most of the festival’s 73-year history, finding a place for students to stay for the summer was not an issue.
Jonathan Haas, who was a student for three years in the 1970s and has now taught percussion in Aspen annually since the early 1980s, estimated he has lived in 25 different places in Aspen over those years.
In Haas’s student days, he recalled, he would go in with three or four classmates and rent a home on Red Mountain — the neighborhood where houses rarely now sell for less than eight figures.
“Change is understandable,” he said. “It’s not the same world. But I do have those fond memories of living on Red Mountain. … It was actually an aspect of Aspen that I always enjoyed — the variety of different houses and the people who came with the houses, too, because you got to know them. It created a nice bond between the musicians and the townsfolk who were willing and had the ability to share their homes.”
Haas bought a condo in Snowmass Village several years ago, in part because he and his wife have two dogs, and it was growing increasingly difficult to find pet-friendly rentals.
The increasing scarcity of pet-friendly places is also impacting the festival. One faculty member, who had been scheduled to teach for the full eight weeks of the festival in 2022, could not find a rental that would accommodate his family and two small dogs for the season. The best the festival could find for them was a five-week rental, so they have lightened his academic load and shortened his time with students.
“Even emotional support animals aren’t allowed in many condominium complexes,” said Krigel Collins. “It adds to the struggle.”
Through mailers and email blasts, the Music Fest has been attempting to enlist more locals in its small but long-standing “host family” program, much as the Aspen Skiing Co. did this winter in its “Tenants for Turns” initiative, trading ski passes for extra rooms in locals’ homes. Ten families so far have begun the process of becoming hosts, with 14 beds for students. Four of them are new.
“I do have the highest number of new host families that I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” said Lee. “I am grateful for all the people who’ve stepped up and done that really generous thing of opening their home to a stranger.”
Some see hope on the horizon as the Music Fest leads the Aspen community in finding housing solutions. Haas, the percussion teacher who also serves as a faculty representative on the Music Fest’s board of directors, believes festival leaders will find ways to save the festival from further erosion due to housing issues.
“There’s some heavy lifting that’s going to need to be done by the board, as to what are the possible solutions,” Haas said. “This board is so dedicated to finding a solution or many solutions, that I’m actually really optimistic that they will be found. At what cost, nobody can determine that right now. But this is a group of people truly caring for the arts, caring for education, and caring for the things that the festival brings to Aspen in the summertime.”